Skiing Pico de Orizaba
Many of the crew here at Patagonia del norte (aka, Reno Distribution Center) scattered to the hills this weekend for some summertime fun, only to be served up a reminder that summer's coming to an end. Sure, there's another month+ of clear skies and warm weather, but two cold storms in the month of August are enough to get some of us 'round here started on thoughts of wintertime fun. And what better way to ease the seasonal transition than with a little adventure that delivers a taste of both. Today's post comes to us courtesy of Cleanest Line reader, Ryan Lynch. Ryan's a climber and skier who lives in Jackson, WY and works on a "hotshot" crew, fighting wildfires. During his time off last year he headed south with fellow skier/climber/hotshot, Matt Castellon, to do a little skiing off of North America's third-highest summit. Here's Ryan:
Not many people go to Mexico for the skiing, but that is exactly what we did on a month long rock-climbing and skiing road trip south of the border. The main objective for the trip was to climb and ski off the top of the 18,490 ft. volcano, Pico de Orizaba. Along the way we were able to stop and check out many of Mexico’s lesser known sport climbing areas. My partner on this adventure was Matt Castellon, who, like me, is a wildland firefighter just off of his first year as a McCall, Idaho, smoke jumper.
Pico de Orizaba is a dormant volcano located southwest of Mexico City and just 68 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl by the Mexican people, is part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and reaches a height of 18,490 ft. (5,636 m), making it the third highest peak in North America. The first known ascent of the peak was completed by a group of Europeans during a botanical expedition on August 22, 1838. Members of this expedition included Henri Galeotti, Augusto B. Ghiesbreght, Jean-Jules Linden, and Nicolas Funck. This group ascended the peak by way of the Jamapa Glacier, which is on the north face, and is now known as the “normal route.”[Pico de Orizaba. Photo: Ryan Lynch]
We had arrived in town on a Sunday and the start of an eight-day festival. The festival included food vendors and carnival rides for the kids and turned a sleepy town into one of much activity. One of the more unnerving aspects of the festival was the fireworks that were being shot off all day and night. The fireworks sounded exactly like gunshots, and after hearing about all violence and drug cartel activity in the country, this sound took a little getting used to. After spending the night in Tlachichuca, we drove up to the Piedra Grande hut at 13,943ft. The road up to the hut is a true 4x4 road, and we were extremely happy that Matt’s Tacoma had no trouble negotiating it. We arrived at about noon and spent the rest of the day in the hut out of the raging wind, getting our gear ready, as well as resting, eating, hydrating, and trying to get used to the elevation. We intended to try the route the next day even though we realized that we were probably not quite acclimatized. However, both of us did not want to stay at nearly 14,000 ft. for more nights than were necessary.
For most of the day, we had the hut completely to ourselves. This all changed when a dozen Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated clients and guides burst through the door in the late afternoon. These folks were extremely excited and full of enthusiasm, and I think that helped get us charged up as well. The guidebook says that the hut can hold up to 60 people, but it felt fairly crowded with just 14 of us in there. Around 8:30 in the evening after a hearty dinner, most of the lights in the hut were off, and people were trying to get some sleep. The RMI crew were planning on acclimating the next day, but our alarms were set for 5:00 a.m. and a summit attempt.
We were both up and starting to dress when 5:00 a.m. rolled around, as we had both barely slept during the night. We ate a quick breakfast and were ready to hit the trail by 5:30. Instead of a dirt trail right out of the hut, climbers ascend the top of a concrete aqueduct for a few hundred feet. Trying to negotiate this in the early morning is quite a feat with clumsy ski boots on. Soon, we gained the dirt trail that climbs up what is known as the "labyrinth." The trail through the labyrinth was well marked with cairns and the occasional orange painted rock. As we climbed through the labyrinth, the sun was beginning to rise above the Gulf of Mexico. A sea of clouds to the west made it feel like we were floating above the earth.
Above the labyrinth, we were able to leave the dirt trail and reach the Jamapa Glacier. At this point, we donned crampons and started the long slog up toward the summit ridge. From the bottom of the glacier, the climb up to summit ridge did not look far at all. This was very deceiving as it seemed the snow slope would never end, and we made slow progress in the thin air. Luckily, we were blessed with incredible weather, a pleasant, sunny day with mild temperatures and only a slight hint of wind. The huge cloud banks below us did not seem to be moving anywhere, and we realized that we did not have to rush to the summit. We didn’t want to reach the summit too quickly because we wanted to give the bullet-proof snow a chance to soften up.Finally after endless slogging and wondering if we would ever make the summit ridge, we crested the slope and looked down upon the huge volcanic crater. The multi-colored crater was in stark contrast to the bright white glacier we had been traveling on all morning. It was quite a relief to look up from the rim of the crater and see that the summit was only about 15 minutes away. With summit fever blocking out the fatigue, we quickly climbed the last few hundred feet. On top of Orizaba was a huge metal cross that was no longer standing upright, along with many other mementos that people had left as offerings. The cross on top was not a big surprise to us, as they can be seen throughout Mexico and especially on any high point that could be accessed. We shared the summit with no one else that day. After staying on the summit for over half an hour and taking the obligatory summit photos, the piercing headache and the nausea from the high altitude of 18,500 ft. began to set in, and it was time to head down.
On a ski mountaineering adventure, the top is definitely just the midpoint. Once on top, the fun is just beginning. We were able to click into our skis about 10 ft. below the true summit and start our ski descent. Having our skis on felt truly foreign, as we both hadn’t skied since the end of April. The first few turns were the hairiest as we were just above a sulfur pit that we did not want to slide into. Luckily, the slope was only about 35 degrees and we were able to make tentative turns above it. Once safely away from the sulfur pit, we were able to start opening up some turns on the face. The snow had softened up some and though edgeable, it was still quite hard. We leapfrogged down the face, stopping when burning thighs and heaving lungs would let us go no farther. Halfway down the face, the angle eased off considerably, but the softened snow had turned to ice. This made the rest of our descent a bone rattling, teeth chattering affair. I was glad that all my dental work stayed in place. Although the ski descent was only about 2,500 ft., the combination of fatigue and tough skiing conditions made it seem much longer.
When we both reached the bottom of the glacier, we took our skis off and collapsed on the snow. We sat back, basking in the afternoon sun and looking back up the glacier from where we had come. Because of the hard snow conditions, I could just barely make out our faint ski tracks. Looking up and knowing that we had come all that way and achieved our goal of skiing off the third highest peak in North America produced great satisfaction.
After sitting there for a while and finishing the last of our food and water, we forced ourselves to get up and began the long dirt trail slog back to the hut. This involved much tripping and stumbling with our skis on our backs scrapping every rock they could find. Finally, we reached the hut and were warmly welcomed by the guided party who had taken a short hike that day. Soon enough, we packed the truck up and headed down to town for a well deserved Mexican dinner.
[Top, Matt Castellon nears the summit. Middle, preparing to start the ski descent. Bottom, finding an edge in the crust of a permanent snowfield is made all the more difficult by the altitude. Photos, Ryan Lynch]